Sunday, July 22, 2007

Departing the airport we caught I-35 toward Waco. Our first stop: The Dr Pepper Museum. The museum contains a somewhat predictable range of artifacts -- old bottles, commercials, and equipment. But it also includes some marvelously strange exhibits, most notably an old well that once served as a source of supposedly efficacious water but had been abandoned when Waco disallowed the use of downtown wells decades ago. Some graduate students searched the old records and conducted their own archeological research to rediscover the well. For some reason, it's pretty cool to peer down into that old hole in the ground inside the Dr Pepper building. Our goal for the day, however, was in Llano. Turning off the interstate, we headed along State Road 29 and encountered a calm and relaxing drive that passes goats and emus. Since days of rain had recently soaked the state, the grass was lush. At once we recognized that we'd entered BBQ country, passing perhaps ten shacks, drive-ins, and sit-down restaurants serving tender concoctions of beef, pork, and chicken. Any one of these places are probably better than the average BBQ in California, but our destination was Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.

Cooper's proved to be an auspicious start. Pulling into the parking lot, we were engulfed with a wave of smoke emanating from of row after row of pits. A small line peered into the nearest one as the pit boss pointed out hunks of meat: ribs, brisket, chicken, sausage, and more. At Cooper's you discuss your preferences with the boss who then selects the cuts you prefer. If the line is short, you have a little time to ask questions and even negotiate. But I was an easy sale; I came for the brisket. The pit boss positioned a heavy knife at roughly the midpoint of a huge mound. "About here?" he said. Jenny and I had agreed to limit our portions, but I lost all sense of proportion when I caught a whiff of my dinner. "Oh yeah," I said, even as Jenny jabbed me in the ribs. "We can't eat all of that!" she warned. "Oh yes we can," I replied. Jenny's expression grew stern, but not so much that she didn't order a half chicken to augment that brisket. The boss tossed the meat onto butcher paper lining our trays and directed us inside. There, we gave our trays to a precision cutter who trimmed some fat and transformed our meals into more manageable pieces. We also grabbed some coleslaw, some drinks, and some cobbler for dessert. When Jenny ordered that last item -- containers of peach and blackberry -- I had to laugh.

We found seats in long picnic tables topped with paper towel rolls and other condiments, including giant mayonnaise jars filled with jalapeño peppers. Having been given no plates, our meat was wrapped in butcher paper, becoming presents to be opened. I unfolded the brisket and sunk my teeth inside, wiping away juices with my napkins. The meat was spicy and charred around the edges, but in the center it was tender and nearly translucent. The taste was mildly salty (Jenny thought a bit too salty) and smoky. We also split pieces of the chicken, which was equally tasty if a little bit dry. Cooper's offers a vinegar-based sauce, but I found the meat to be excellent on its own. The coleslaw was finally chopped and zesty with vinegar. I dowsed my taste buds with some sweet tea while Jenny chose Big Red and Vienna selected Dr Pepper in honor of our museum visit. After finishing our meals with some Blue Bell Ice Cream and cobbler, we walked around the pits, chatting with the fellows who thanked us after every conversation. These folks see lots of tourists, but they haven't forgotten the role of friendly courtesy that assures return visits. Before we left, Jenny asked me to put a BBQ sauce thumbprint on the back of her shirt where our "tour dates" are located. Now my job is to "sauce her" with every stop. We then returned to the road, chatting with anticipation for the days ahead. Driving through occasional light bursts of fireflies in the twilight hour we headed for Taylor.

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All text and photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood